— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Sunday, November 10, 2002
Ruth, Maris, and Ned Williamson
Stephen takes a look at the forgotten home run king.
Baseball fans and the media have long been infatuated with baseball’s single-season homerun record. The media followed every pitch in the Mickey Mantle-Roger Maris chase, the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa chase, and the recent homerun rampage exhibited by Barry Bonds.
All contemporary baseball fans, and perhaps contemporary non-baseball fans, are well aware that Bonds broke McGwire’s 1998 record of 70 homeruns in a season by hitting 73 in 2001. Moderate baseball fans can tell you that in 1998, McGwire broke Roger Maris’s record of 61, set in 1961. Serious baseball fans could tell you that Maris “broke” Babe Ruth’s record of 60 set in 1927, and they could even explain the asterisk. But, perhaps only a baseball historian can answer the following question: Whose record did Ruth break?
In 1919, for the Boston Red Sox, Ruth hit 29 homeruns to set a new single-season homerun record, surpassing the prior record by only two (and thereafter, Babe left Beantown for the Bronx, leaving behind a unique and vicious hex). The previous record of 27 homeruns in a season stood for 35 years. It was set in 1884 by Ned Williamson who played for Chicago White Stockings in the National League.
There are some interesting facts surrounding Williamson and his record. A quick glance at Williamson’s career statistics, one immediately wonders how Williamson hit 27 homeruns in 1884, to shatter the previous record of 14. Williamson hit only 64 homeruns in his entire career, which spanned 13 seasons. His next highest season total was only 9. Four years before breaking the record Williamson had 311 at-bats, in 1880, without hitting a homerun! The year before he hit 27 homers, he hit only 2, while playing a full season. And, the year after he hit 27, he hit only 3. How did Williamson hit 27 homers in 1884, a record that stood for 35 years? Were steroids available in 1884?
A little research reveals the answer. Beginning in 1878, Chicago’s National League team played in Lakefront Park. The distances to the fence at Lakefront Park were amazingly short. It was only 196 feet to right, 252 feet to right-center, 300 feet to left-center, and 180 feet to left. Because the fences were so short, special ground rules were
adopted for Lakefront Park. Every ball hit out of the Park was ruled a double, instead of a homerun. However, for only one year, they changed the special ground rules at the Park. In 1884, balls hit out of Lakefront Park were ruled homeruns. Williamson welcomed the one-year rule by banging out 27.
In 1884, Chicago’s hitters piled-up power numbers previously unthinkable. They hit 142 homers, which broke the previous team record of only 35, set the year before by Cincinnati. Four Chicago players hit over 20 homeruns that season. The closest one to Williamson was Fred Pfeffer (that’s a lot of f’s) who hit 25. Even teammate Cap Anson, the best player of the era and probably the biggest racist in the history of baseball, hit 21 for Chicago in 1884. Interestingly, Anson called Williamson “the greatest all-around ballplayer the country ever saw.” Despite Chicago’s unprecedented display of power, they finished in 5th place in the National League.
Not surprisingly, Chicago led the league in doubles from 1879 to 1883. Interestingly, Williamson led the league in doubles in 1883 with 49. Perhaps the homerun record most deserving of an asterisk was Williamson’s.
It’s possible that Williamson could have hit even more than 27 homeruns in 1884. In the last game of the season, Williamson hit his 27th homerun in the first inning. In the seventh inning, another Chicago player hit a foul ball onto Michigan Avenue. A lengthy search for the ball proved fruitless, and because it was getting dark and they didn’t have another ball, the game was cancelled.
There are several other interesting facts surrounding Williamson. He was the first player to hit 3 homers in a game, which occurred in (surprise, surprise) 1884. Also, although Williamson was not likely aware, he led the league in saves in 1885, with 2. He pitched in 2 games in 1885, and pitched in 12 games during his career, finishing with a respectable 3.34 ERA. Williamson still clings to two other records. Only three National League players have hit 4 homeruns in regular season play in October: Dave Parker, Mike Schmidt, and Ned Williamson. In addition, Williamson played a key role in the 1883 Chicago White Stockings’ (which is a predecessor to the Chicago Cubs) record-setting inning where they scored the most runs ever in one inning. In the bottom of the seventh inning in an 1883 game against Detroit, Williamson led things off for Chicago with an over-the-fence double. During the inning, Williamson came to bat two more times, and he singled both times. In all, in the seventh inning, Williamson went 3 for 3 and scored 3 runs, while Chicago scored 18 runs. These records still stand.
Since the founding of the National League in 1876, only seven players have held the single-season homerun record. George Hall was the first player to hold the record by hitting 5 homeruns in the National League’s inaugural season, for Philadelphia. In December of 1878, he left a more tarnished mark on baseball, by being banished from the major leagues, with two other players, for having been found to have thrown several games. He would never play major league baseball again.
The next year, 1879, Charley Jones of Boston broke Hall’s record by hitting 9 homeruns. Jones set another homerun record the following year, by hitting 2 homeruns in 1 inning. Harry Stovey broke Jones’s record in 1883 by hitting 14 homeruns for Philadelphia, but he could hold onto the coveted record for only one year. The following season, 1884, Williamson set his mark of 27.
Ruth held the single-season homerun record for the longest period of time, for 42 years. Next in line are Maris, 37 years, and Williamson, 35 years. Then we have the other four record-holders, whose longevity is more aptly characterized as brevity. Jones held the record for 4 years. McGwire stands next to Hall, holding the record for only 3 years. Poor Stovey’s record stood for only 1 year, thanks to the one-year suspension of the special ground rules at Lakefront Park.
Now, how long do you think Bonds can hang onto the record? At the rate we have been seeing homeruns hit in the past several seasons, chances look pretty good that Bonds won’t be able to catch Ned Williamson’s mark for longevity, let alone the marks set by Maris or the Babe.
Posted: November 10, 2002 at 05:00 AM | 22 comment(s)
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